Meet Rachel Harrison, a primatologist focusing on behavioural flexibility, innovation and social learning!

What is your scientific background?

I did my undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of St Andrews, and as part of that degree I took modules in comparative cognition and evolutionary psychology and conducted my undergraduate research on tool-use in young children. I then decided to do an MSc in Evolutionary and Comparative Psychology (also at St Andrews) and following that I applied for a Ph.D. with my MSc project supervisor. I’m writing up my Ph.D. thesis on behavioural flexibility, innovation and social learning in chimpanzees and children, and the ways in which these abilities might influence cumulative culture – the process in which socially learned behaviours are modified over generations and build up into behaviours and technology more complex than a single individual could invent. Although I’m still writing up, I’m currently working at the University of Birmingham on a project looking at the impact of educational television programmes on children’s problem-solving skills.

Rachel during field work in Chimfunshi/Liz Bridges

What is a typical day like for you?

At the moment, I’m essentially doing two jobs at once – during the day, I’m working on a project at the University of Birmingham for Dr Sarah Beck (@sarahruthbeck). We’re looking at whether educational television might improve children’s problem-solving skills. So a normal day would involve phoning schools to set up testing sessions (if anyone reading this works in a primary school and would be interested in taking part, contact me!), or traveling to a school to run the experiment. That means children leave class for a little while to play some games with myself and another researcher so that we can measure their problem-solving abilities. Testing days are lots of fun because the children enjoy the games, but they’re also very tiring – you have to be “on” all the time to make sure children stay engaged. Then, after work, it’s Ph.D. time! I find that working on something practical all day means that by the evening, I feel fairly motivated to write.

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

I’ve loved animals since I was a child – I grew up on a smallholding with cows, sheep, and chickens, and always had dogs and cats growing up, as well as a healthy dose of David Attenborough documentaries and the Really Wild Show (like most British children). Despite that, becoming a scientist was something I never considered before university – my plan when I chose to study psychology was to become an educational psychologist. However, at some point during my last couple of years of undergrad, I realised that all these fascinating papers I was reading for my course – on chimpanzee social learning, over-imitation in children, tool-use in corvids – meant that people had jobs researching these things. I also got the chance to do a really interesting undergraduate project with a great supervisor, and actually experience what research would be like. So I’m certainly not someone who, from childhood, wanted to be a scientist, but I discovered it as a possibility during university and really never looked back.

Rachel presenting at IPS 2016/ Emmie Bryant

Do you come from an academic family? How does your family regard your career choice?

Both of my parents have post-graduate degrees, but I’m the first in the family to go for a Ph.D. My family has been hugely supportive – my parents even came to visit when I was doing research at a chimpanzee sanctuary in Zambia, which meant the world to me at the time! I think they would like me to have a more stable, predictable career so that I could make long-term plans, but they would always want me to do something I love.

What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?

I was incredibly lucky to spend my Ph.D. sharing an office and a lab group with amazingly kind, generous, funny and compassionate fellow students and researchers. There was always someone who had time for a cup of tea (or a pint at the pub!) to commiserate over setbacks or celebrate successes. Seeing everyone go through the ups and downs of research reinforced the fact that everyone has difficult times during a Ph.D. or research project – and that it was completely possible to pick yourself up and carry on.

Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?

Often, of course! Everyone does, that’s why ‘imposter syndrome’ is a phrase. It can be very easy to compare yourself and your work unfavourably to others. I have a couple of strategies – one is simply talking to people about it. You’ll quickly find that the Ph.D. student at the desk next to yours has been worried that you’ve completed more studies than her, while you’ve been worrying that she’s been accepted to give a talk at a conference and you ‘only’ have a poster… Just chatting about those feelings with friends can be a massive help. We even had a quote from my friend’s supervisor on our office wall – “You’re comparing your gag reel to everyone else’s highlights”. Another thing I do is keep a folder of complimentary emails I can look at – if people have complimented a conference presentation, or piece of public engagement – and take a scroll through those to reassure myself. Now I’m working on sending more of those sorts of emails to other researchers!

Chimpanzee Lods exploring an experiment at Chimfunshi/ Rachel Harrison

What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?

I’ve managed to hit the jackpot of working with both children and animals, so research can be pretty entertaining. Some things are only funny in hindsight (like the chimp who determinedly detached my task from the mesh of her enclosure, and ran away into the forest with it – luckily we were able to retrieve it later), but some are immediately hilarious (like the child who decided that rather than attempting another Ph.D. student’s puzzle box, they would rather lie face down on the floor, motionless and impervious to offers of stickers, until they were retrieved by a teacher).

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?

I think it’s a very complex issue which probably doesn’t have one, simple, solution – I think there are a lot of barriers to diversity in science. But I firmly believe the saying: “You can’t be what you can’t see”. I know that, during my undergrad degree, being in a department which employed a lot of women (including my fantastic undergraduate supervisor), helped me to see this career path as a real option. So along those lines, I think equal representation at conferences, especially in keynote or plenary speakers, is really important. I also think that doing public engagement and science communication as a woman in science is very important, for the same reason.


You can visit Rachel’s website, email her at, or follow her on Twitter!